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The History of Writing Instruments

Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian journalist, invented the first ballpoint pen in 1938. Biro had observed that the type of ink used in newspaper printing dried rapidly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. He was determined to construct a pen using the same type of ink. The thicker ink would not flow from a regular pen nib so he had to develop a new type of point. Biro was able to devise this by fitting his pen with a tiny ball bearing in its tip. As the pen moved along the paper, the ball rotated as it picked up ink from the ink cartridge and leaving it on the paper. This principle of the ballpoint pen dates back to an 1888 patent in which was owned by John J. Loud for a product that would mark leather. Nevertheless, Loud's patent was commercially unexploited. In 1938 Laszlo Biro first patented his pen, and applied for a new patent in Argentina on June 10, 1943. (In 1940, Laszlo Biro and his brother George Biro emigrated to Argentina.) The British Government bought the licensing rights to this patent to help with the war. The British Royal Air Force needed a new kind of pen, one that would not leak at high altitudes in fighter planes like the fountain pen did. Its successful performance for the Air Force brought the Biro pens public interest. Laszlo Biro had neglected to obtain a U.S. patent for his pen and so even with World War II ending, another battle was just beginning.

Historical Outline - The Battle of Ballpoint Pens

The quill pen dipped into dark paint was the first pen-writing instrument. There became a need to eliminate smearing, eliminate splatter, lengthen the time between dips, and improve pen handling.

  • Early 1800s: The first designs for pens that were able to hold their own ink was patented.
  • 1884: A New York City insurance salesman, L.E. Waterman, designed the first effective fountain pen. Fountain pens become the predominant writing tool for the next sixty years. Four fountain pen manufactures dominate the market: Waterman, Sheaffer, Parker and Wahl-Eversharp.
  • 1938: Invention of a ballpoint pen by Laszlo Biro and George Biro, both Hungarian inventors. Together the brothers worked on the pen and applied for patents in 1938 and 1940. The new-formed Eterpen Company in Argentina commercialized the Biro pen. The press praised the success of this writing instrument because it could write for a year without having to refill it.
  • May 1945: Eversharp Co. teams up with Eberhard-Faber to obtain the exclusive rights to Biro Pens of Argentina. The pen re-branded the " Eversharp CA " which stood for Capillary Action. Released to the press months in advance of public sales.
  • June, 1945: Less than a month after Eversharp/Eberhard closed the deal with Eterpen, Milton Reynolds, a Chicago businessman, visits Buenos Aires . He sees the Biro pen while in a store and identifies the pen's sales potential. He purchases a few pens as samples. Reynolds returns to America and creates the Reynolds International Pen Company, ignoring Eversharp's patent rights.
  • October 29, 1945: Reynolds duplicates the product in four months and sells his product as Reynold's Rocket at Gimbel's department store in New York City . Reynolds' reproduction of the pen beats Eversharp to market. Reynolds' pen is an immediate success: Priced at $12.50 with $100,000 worth sold the first day on the market.
  • December, 1945: Britain was close behind with the first ballpoint pens accessible to the public which sold at Christmas by the Miles-Martin Pen Company.

The Ballpoint Pen Becomes a Promotional Fad

Ballpoint pens were guaranteed to write for two years without refilling, and claimed to be smear proof. Reynolds promoted it as the pen "to write under water." Eversharp sued Reynolds for copying the design it had attained legally. The previous patent in 1888 by John Loud would have invalidated everyone's claims. Though, no one knew that at the time. Both competitors skyrocketed in sales. Nevertheless, the Reynolds' pen skipped, leaked and often failed to write. And, Eversharp's pen did not live up to its own advertisements. A substantial amount of pen returns took place for both Reynolds and Eversharp. As a result of consumer discontent the ballpoint pen fad ended.

  • 1948: Poor quality products, frequent price wars and heavy advertising costs hurt each side. As a result, sales plummeted. The original asking price of $12.50 fell to less than 50 cents per pen.
  • 1950: The French Baron called Bich, dropped the h and began BIC and selling pens.
  • 1951: The ballpoint pen dies a consumer death. Fountain pens rise up and are number one again. Reynolds folds.
  • January, 1954: Parker Pens launches its first ballpoint pen, the Jotter. The Jotter wrote five times longer than the Reynolds or Eversharp pens. It had an array of point sizes, large-capacity ink refills and a rotating cartridge. Best of all, it worked. In less then one year Parker sold 3.5 million Jotters at $2.95 to $8.75.

The Ballpoint Pen Battle is Won

  • 1957: Parker launches the tungsten carbide textured ball bearing in their ballpoint pens. By this point Eversharp was in real financial trouble and tried to go back to selling fountain pens. Eversharp sold its pen division to Parker Pens and assets finally liquidated in the 1960's for Eversharp.
  • Late 1950's: BIC Pens ® held 70% of European market.
  • 1958: BIC buys 60% of the New York based Waterman Pens.
  • 1960: BIC owns 100% of Waterman Pens. BIC sells ballpoint pens in U.S. for 29 - 69 cents.

The Ballpoint Pen War is Won

BIC ® dominates the pen market. Parker, Waterman and Sheaffer, take over the smaller upscale markets of expensive ballpoints and fountain pens.

  • Today: The modern and highly popular version of Laszlo Biro's pen, the BIC Crystal, has a daily world wide sales figure of 14,000,000 pieces. In most of the world, Biro has still attained the generic name used for the ballpoint pen. The Biro pens that the British Air Force in W.W.II used worked fine. Parker black ballpoint pens will generate more than 28,000 linear feet of writing - more than five miles, before it runs out of ink.

Learn the History of Bic Pens

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